Photoshop basics: setup & workflow

Photoshop is one of the most powerful photo editing programs around. Assuming you have little to no experience with Photoshop yet, we’ll start with the basics. In the first half of this post we’ll walk through the basic install and setup. The second half is all about establishing your editing workflow from start to finish.

Purchase and Install

The newest versions of Adobe software are available in the form of a subscription service. For $9.99/month, Adobe offers a package for photographers which includes Lightroom, Photoshop, and Bridge. You can sign up for a subscription or a free thirty day trial here on the Adobe website.

Once you have obtained a copy of Photoshop, the first thing you want to take a look at is Bridge. Adobe Bridge is a separate file browsing application. Using the folder panel, you can look up any images you have stored on your computer. The primary use of Bridge is to keep your work organized. Adding keywords to your images from the start can make finding them later a whole lot easier. It can be used to view previews of images, edit metadata, and to open files into Photoshop or Adobe Camera Raw.

Adobe Camera Raw

Photoshop opens all raw files using the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) plugin. Camera Raw can be used without even opening Photoshop. By right clicking on any image in Bridge, the file can be opened into Camera Raw. If you are familiar with Lightroom, learning Camera Raw should be very straightforward. Most of the tools in Camera Raw are very similar to what Lightroom uses.

I do about 85% of my photo editing work using the tools in Camera Raw. Everything from exposure, white balance, contrast, filters, adjustment brushes, and lens corrections can all be done in Camera Raw.

All of the changes made to an image in Camera Raw are non-destructive, meaning you can always go back and fix something if you make a mistake. None of the changes made alter the original image, instead they change the way the software interprets and presents the data.

The Adobe Camera Raw interface

The Adobe Camera Raw interface



The image below shows the default layout for the Photoshop workspace:


  • Menu bar – The menu bar looks similar to those in other programs. It runs across the top of the window, containing various menus for Photoshop’s functions.
  • Options bar – The options bar sits just below the menu bar. It contains specific options and settings for the tool currently in use.
  • Tools panel – The default location of the tool panel is along the left side of the window. This panel contains shortcut buttons to all the tools available in Photoshop.
  • Palettes – Palettes (or panels) are located along the right side of the window. They contain information and options for the file you’re working on. By default there are 5 different palettes, which can be minimized or closed individually.
  • Document window – Each file or document has its own document window and status bar that runs along the bottom of the window. If you have multiple documents open at once, each document will have its own tab below the menu bar.
Layers and masks

Layers are a major part of the functionality of Photoshop. By creating a new layer for each task, you can work on different areas without affecting the rest of the image.

A new layer is invisible and has no effect until you apply some sort of adjustment or modification to it. Transparent areas of a layer are represented by a checkered grid. The layers panel appears within the palette on the right side of the window. Each layer can be individually turned on or off by clicking on the eye icon next to it.

Masks are used to hide or “mask” specific portions of a layer. They are particularly useful for applying local adjustments in limited areas of an image. Layer masks appear as a thumbnail next to the layer thumbnail in the layers panel. When applying a mask to a layer, black hides the layer and white reveals it.

This image has three layers.  The bottom layer is the image.  Above it is a brightness and contrast adjustment.  The top layer is a curves adjustment.

This image has three layers. The bottom layer is the image. Above it is a brightness and contrast adjustment. The top layer is a curves adjustment.

Smart objects and filters

Any image or layer can be turned into a smart object in Photoshop. Using smart objects allows you to continue working non-destructively, allowing you to scale, rotate, and warp perspective without losing any of the image’s quality. Right click on the image or layer you want and select ‘convert to smart object’.

Filters are a common use for smart filters. Photoshop CC comes with a huge library of photo filters pre-loaded. Once an object has been converted to a smart object, you’re free to convert it to black + white or apply any other number of photo filters without altering the original image.

When a layer has a smart filter applied to it, the thumbnail in the layer panel has a small icon in the corner. To edit the filter, double click on the icon.

Click here to continue reading. The next post explains all of the individual tools in the Photoshop toolbox.